Science magazine’s July 11, 2014 issue unleashed a firestorm on social media today. The issue, a special focused on ways to stay ahead of HIV and AIDS, prominently features two transgender women sex workers on its cover. While relevant to the focus of the issue — transwomen sex workers in Jakarta have been largely ignored by the Indonesian government in its efforts to combat HIV and AIDS — the focal point of the photo is incredibly problematic. Instead of showing viewers a humanizing glimpse into the lives of these women, the reader’s eye is drawn directly to their thighs, which are placed almost dead center on the cover. Indeed, their legs take up about half of the cover, and their heads have been cropped out of the picture.
Photographers who are sensitive to the privacy of their subjects use a number of techniques to capture a moment without revealing the identity of people involved. One of these techniques is the cropping of the face — most often before or after the nose, in order to convey some emotion through the mouth, but occasionally the face is cropped in its entirety.
This isn’t necessarily dehumanizing, but the context is extremely important. When you are dealing with members of a highly stigmatized population who are at risk of systemic violence and murder, it is unacceptable to commit the metaphoric violence of beheading for the purpose of staging. If this is somehow confusing to you, look up Gary Ridgeway.
Beyond the particulars related to the violence faced by sex workers, the fact that these women are trans means they are 28 percent more likely to experience physical violence than their gender-normative peers. Do you understand now?
But there is another message here, one illustrated by the way that the lightness of the legs lead the eye to the place where they meet the torso. A sex worker is never allowed to forget that the physical labor in which he or she engages is morally different than that of a farmer or a factory worker. Likewise, a transgender individual is never allowed to forget the cisgender fascination with what’s between his or her legs — what Katie Couric shamelessly termed “the genitalia question.”
In a single image, Science distills the subject of a feature story into the object of the viewer’s prejudice and fascination. This image isn’t about the demographic being discussed in the article within — it exists entirely for the viewer. Is that the correct approach to take when the feature in question is one about a serious health crisis?
Over the past decade, Science has featured photographs of humans on their covers a total of 42 times. With the exception of the May 18, 2007 issue, which showed a woman flirtatiously chewing on a pencil and staring straight into the camera, and that of June 10, 2005, which featured a nude woman with long blonde hair photographed from behind, the covers have worked in tandem with articles to depict the populations discussed in the magazine’s pages in a sensitive, human way.
In ten years, almost every cover featuring people has included their faces — or at the very least their heads — with two notable exceptions. The July 15, 2011 issue featured on its cover only a hand making the victory sign with the Egyptian flag in the background. The feature story was, naturally, about education reforms in Egypt following the resignation of Hosni Mubarak.
The second is the February 22, 2013 cover, which featured three arms in the foreground, two belonging to a medical professional and the last to a woman being tested for HIV. The power of this image is in the background, where — sufficiently out of focus to ensure anonymity — another woman and a man look on. That cover also focused on HIV.
That the only cover to decapitate women in a decade of Science magazine covers is for an issue that specifically focuses on transwomen of color who are sex workers is disturbing. But the real escalation occurred only after one of the Science editors decided to respond to readers’ concerns.
In response to a comment that the current cover is not the correct response to campaigns to get more women in the magazine, Jim Austin, editor of the Science Careers section responded, “You realize they are transgender? Does it matter? That at least colors things, no?” He clarified that the fact that the women on the cover are transwomen “problemetizes [sic] responses in interesting ways,” adding that it would be “interesting to consider how those gazey males” drawn to such a cover “will feel when they find out” that their eyes were drawn to transwomen.
There it is — the suggestion that transwomen aren’t “real” women, so no harm, no foul. Further, it is not only acceptable to use victims of violence to bait the demographic that most often is responsible for that violence, but it is “interesting” to do so.
Moments after making these remarks, Austin disappeared from the social networking service. Four hours later, Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science issued a public apology for the cover, tweeting, “From us at Science, we apologize to those offended by recent cover. Intent was to highlight solutions to HIV, and it badly missed the mark.”
An additional statement was issued on the Science site and the cover image was taken down, but six hours later, the apology disappeared and the image returned to the site. Both McNutt’s apology on Twitter and Austin’s insensitive remarks about transwomen remain on Twitter.
Header image by Steve Rhodes.